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Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows

The Democratic presidential field is facing its first real winnowing as more than half a dozen candidates confront the increasingly real possibility that they could be left out of the next primary debate.

The fierce competition for money, air time and polling support is taking its toll on the record field of contenders.

In little more than a week’s time, three candidates — former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLobbying world DNC taps veteran campaign hands for communications staff Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington state to provide free menstrual hygiene products in school bathrooms Cuomo signs legislation restoring voting rights to felons upon release from prison Colorado legislature passes bill to allow human composting MORE and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonOvernight Defense: Iran talks set up balancing act for Biden | Pentagon on alert amid Russian saber rattling | Lawmakers urge Pentagon to be pickier about commanders' requests for more troops Is it okay to waste infrastructure dollars? Lawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot MORE (D-Mass.) — exited the race after acknowledging the all but insurmountable odds in their bids for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Morning Consult survey underscored the degree to which the candidates struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Despite months on the campaign trail, Inslee and Moulton were the two least-known candidates after the first two series of debates, with 78 percent of Democrats saying they had never heard of Moulton or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion and 71 percent saying the same of Inslee. 

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At least eight other candidates have found themselves in similar predicaments, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyLobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Tim Ryan touts labor support in Senate bid Democratic leaders push to boost congressional staff pay MORE (D-Ohio). They appear nowhere close to qualifying for the third primary debate in September and are faced with increasingly daunting polling and fundraising gaps between themselves and the field’s top-tier contenders.

“I think you’ll start to see resources dry up for some. I think you’ll see support and enthusiasm diminish and dry up for some. And that’s going to force them to make some decisions,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.

Pollsters say the massive field of contenders has had a freezing effect on voters, many of whom are tuning in for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the number of options as the race heads into the fall. 

Some Democrats are eager for the field to shrink, believing that it’s past time for focus to fall on those considered to be top contenders — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Sanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFree Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech Debate over ICBMs: Will 'defund our defenses' be next? Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden to record video message for 'Vax Live' concert Harris says Mexico, US can work together to improve quality of life in Northern Triangle Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says 'it is time to pass the baton on to someone else' MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Funky Academic:' Public has been 'groomed to measure progress by firsts' Biden administration in talks with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti for India ambassador post: reports Business groups target moderate Democrats on Biden tax plans MORE.

“It’s healthy for it to dwindle at this point,” Seawright said. “If we continue to bloody ourselves up and drag this out, I think we’ll do ourselves a huge disservice.” 

Hickenlooper has already launched a new campaign for the Senate, and Inslee will seek reelection to a third term as governor. Their early exits from the presidential field could ramp up pressure on some of the other low-polling contenders to follow suit. 

“Hickenlooper and Inslee had to get out because they had other races to run and win,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who has endorsed Harris in the primary contest.

Democrats badly want to take over the Senate, and at least two long-shot presidential contenders — Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOvernight Energy: Climate Summit Day 2 — Biden says US will work with other countries on climate innovation Biden announces picks to lead oceans, lands agencies Biden set to pick conservation advocate for top land management role MORE and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — are viewed as top tier Senate candidates in their states with potential to beat the GOP incumbents.

But it’s possible that the massive field of contenders and the chaotic nature of the race could keep many long shots in, with the hope that anything could happen for those left standing when votes are cast.

“It’s an odd year, unlike any I’ve seen in my political life,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose upstart campaign was one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 Democratic primary.

“It’s way too early to tell who might win,” Dean continued. “We might be waiting until the Iowa caucuses for the apple cart to be upset, so my advice to candidates, even if you don’t make the next debate, so what? Even if you finish fourth in Iowa, you could still punch your ticket in South Carolina or Nevada. You’ve got a shot, and there’s an awfully long way to go.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the Democratic field is on the cusp of truly narrowing. Sellers said that it would take one of the race’s higher-profile contenders — O’Rourke or Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAustin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands Gillibrand touts legislation to lower drug costs: This idea 'is deeply bipartisan' A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces MORE (D-N.Y.), for example — dropping out to signal a real winnowing. 

“You have individuals who were contenders to be president of the United States when they announced –  the Gillibrands of the world, the Betos of the world. Until they decide to get out, it’s not a real winnowing,” Sellers said.

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Only 10 to 12 Democrats will likely qualify for the September debate. But at least eight others have little chance of making it: Bullock; Delaney; Ryan; Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetManchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Democrats vow to push for permanent child tax credit expansion Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Colo.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de Blasio3 shot, including 1 child, in Times Square New York area will lift capacity restrictions May 19 NYC 24-hour subway service resumes May 17 MORE; author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Refusal to hike minimum wage is part of 'rigged economy' Rush Limbaugh dead at 70 Marianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" MORE; Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE; and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

But some of those who don’t make the stage could still qualify for the fourth debate in October, likely keeping many candidates in the race for at least a few more months.

Two other candidates — billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerTom SteyerTop 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study California Democrats weigh their recall options Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials Tulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' MORE (D-Hawaii) — are on the verge of qualifying for the September debate but still need to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates register at least 2 percent in four approved polls to secure their spots on stage.

Missing out on the next primary debate could come at a cost. Televised debates offer candidates the chance to pitch themselves in front of a national audience, and several contenders have said that they saw groundswells of support after appearing on the debate stage.

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," said Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic consultant and the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage, to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

Despite the recent exits from the race and the looming debate qualifying deadline, some candidates insist that they will keep going. 

Delaney, who has been running for the Democratic nomination for over two years but whose candidacy has struggled to gain traction, told Boston public radio station WGBH on Thursday that he believes his odds will improve as the field narrows.

“I’m going to be in the race. I’m staying in the race,” he said. “The field gets smaller, the [pool of] interested Democrats gets larger, and they become kind of a more moderate thing, and that’s where I think all the work we’ve done is going to start paying off.”